Author Archive for
Duncan Hollis

Remembering Professor Burns Weston

by Duncan Hollis

Professor Burns Weston passed away on October 28, 2015.  His daughter, Rebecca Weston, wrote the following obituary, which she passed on to us to circulate among the international law community.  I never had the privilege of meeting Professor Weston, but was a regular user of his textbooks (on both international law and international environmental law).  I know I speak for all of us here at Opinio Juris when we offer our condolences to Rebecca, her family, Burns’ former students, as well as all his friends and colleagues.

Burns H. Weston, Bessie Dutton Murray Distinguished Professor of Law Emeritus at the University of Iowa and founder and senior scholar of the University of Iowa Center for Human Rights (UICHR) died on October 28, 2015, just a few days before his 82nd birthday.  After surviving numerous intense challenges to his health, Weston’s death was unexpected and sudden.  To the end, he was excited about upcoming birthday celebrations with his wife and visits to his children over Thanksgiving; he was steadily writing and developing new projects.

Weston was fond of quoting EB White, who said:  “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy.  If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem.  But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world.  This makes it hard to plan my day.”

In his own life, Weston also felt the pull of these choices every day – including in his first pivotal career decision to discontinue a promising career as a pianist or conductor to focus on the then relatively new field of international law.

As loved ones, friends and colleagues from around the world witnessed, Weston had a limitless capacity to enjoy so much about this world – and an equally tenacious drive to improve it.

After receiving his J.D. from Yale Law School, Weston began his legal career in 1961 with the distinguished New York City law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkand, Wharton & Garrison.  Wanting to teach, he subsequently joined The University of Iowa College of Law, where he remained for the rest of his professional life.  He devoted himself to the cause of international law, human rights and environmental sustainability.

As his close friend and colleague, Richard Falk said, Weston was one of “the most talented and dedicated international law scholar[s] of his generation.”  Weston authored over 28 books, innumerable articles, and was on the editorial board of over 10 professional journals, including the American Journal of International Law.  Among others, he published in the Harvard International Law Journal, Human Rights Quarterly, and the Journal of Human Rights and the Environment.

Over the years, Weston participated in fact finding missions, lectured, wrote and taught about some of the most pressing issues facing our planet: nuclear weapons and disarmament, child labor, human rights and in the latter part of his life, environmental survival.  And in doing this work, Weston was often bold and inventive.  As close collaborator David Bollier wrote, he was an “irresistible disruption” – a force of such optimism, conviction and potential – that he emboldened and challenged those around him.

At the University of Iowa, Weston inspired generations of law students and “put Iowa Law on the map” of international law and international human rights. He developed a path-breaking, problem-oriented approach to teaching international law and wrote the award-winning textbook, International Law and World Order: A Problem-Oriented Coursebook.   Always broad and expansive in his thinking, Weston also founded and directed an interdisciplinary, university-wide Center for World Order Studies (later known as the University’s “Global Studies Program”) in the 1970s.

At the same time, Weston was a dedicated teacher who paid close attention to and nurtured his students.  As one student wrote, he “will always be the internationally-renowned scholar, writer, and teacher who was also generous enough to write two e-mails to a very desperate law student when she needed it most.  And there’s not a lot of those out there.”

Prior to the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Weston took part in a human rights fact-finding mission to Havana Cuba in 1984, a protective conflict-mitigation mission in 1985 to accompany former political dissident (and later president) Kim Dae Jung upon his return to Korea following involuntary exile in the United States; and in 1987, a human rights fact-finding mission in the Israeli-Occupied Territories of the West Bank and Gaza.

Later, Weston (usually with his wife Dr. Marta Cullberg Weston), organized and/or participated in a number of human rights fact-finding and conflict-mitigation missions in the former Yugoslavia, Central Asia, and beyond.

In the latter part of his career, Weston founded the University of Iowa Center for Human Rights (UIHCR) and turned his scholarly attention to issues of the environment.  He immersed himself in the politics and the social dynamics of ecological crisis and climate change.  In 2012, Weston authored the International Environmental Law and World Order: A Problem-Oriented Casebook. 

Subsequently, in 2013, Weston co-authored a ground-breaking book titled Green Governance: Ecological Survivial, Human Rights, and the Law of the Commons.   As co-author David Bollier has written about their collaboration on the Commons Law Project, Weston “attacked these questions with the enthusiasm of a first-year law student and the sagacity of a gray eminence. […] He wasn’t afraid if they might require social and political struggle.”

At the time of his death, he was in the final stages of completing the 4th edition of Human Rights in the World Community: Issues and Action, with co-author, Anna Grear.

In his non-academic, non-activist life, Weston embraced the world “with all five senses.”  Above all, he was passionate about and constantly immersed in classical music:  friends and family can easily recall moments when Weston’s attention drifted into a musical score; they remember often urging him to lower the volume just enough to hear themselves talk in the car or over a dinner table conversation.

He also loved art, taking drives and going to movies.  He had a strong sense of aesthetics and a gifted ability to create beautiful spaces. In no place were Weston’s senses more alive or more soothed then in his beloved Adirondack Mountains.  Until the end, Weston was a devoted spouse, father and grandfather: he was consistently and steadily available, curious about and eager to support and connect with his children and grandchildren.

Weston is survived by his wife, Marta Cullberg-Weston (Sweden) and his two children, Timothy Bergmann Weston (Boulder) and Rebecca Burns Weston (Montana), four grandchildren (Leah and Emma Yonemoto-Weston, Elijah and Isabella Weston-Capulong) and three stepchildren, Malin Cullberg, Johannes Cullberg, and Martin Cullberg and five step grand-children John Birger Wedinger, Olivia Lampenius Cullberg, Sima Wiernik Cullberg, Joar Wiernik Cullberg, and Cecilia Lampenius Cullberg.

A memorial service in honor of Weston will be held at the University of Iowa College of Law on December 5, 2015, from 2:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.  Donations in Weston’s honor will be accepted at the Iowa Law School Foundation for the benefit of the University of Iowa Center for Human Rights, 130 Byington Road, Iowa City, Iowa 52242

ASIL’s Research Forum

by Duncan Hollis

I wanted to flag for interested readers the upcoming ASIL Research Forum in Washington, D.C., on October 23-24, 2015  I’ve been to a couple of the previous iterations and can attest that it’s a great way to catch up on some new scholarship and to hear a mix of new and old voices in the field.  This year’s event looks to continue that tradition.  Here’s how ASIL’s Executive Director Mark Agrast pitches the event:

This year’s Forum offers an exceptionally rich and diverse program, including expert-led discussions of 70 innovative papers, a luncheon program featuring remarks by former ICJ Judge and ASIL Honorary President Tom Buergenthal; and a ticketed dinner discussion of “Dispute Settlement with Iran: From the Hostage Crisis to the Nuclear Accord” with key negotiators from the U.S. Department of State.

The Forum will also include events specifically designed for students and new professionals. Our “International Law Career Panel and Speed Mentoring Event” will feature practitioners from a variety of international law fields and a networking reception, and two leading law librarians will lead a session on “International Law Research Strategies.”

This will be an outstanding opportunity for lawyers interested in the latest developments in international law to connect with thought leaders in their areas of interest.

If interested, you can see the full program and submit your registration here.  I’ll be commenting on a few treaty papers on Saturday, so feel free to say hello if you see me there.


Book Symposium: Cyber War – A Duty to Hack and the Boundaries of Analogical Reasoning

by Duncan Hollis

Back in 2012, I was pleased to receive an invitation to a conference that Jens, Kevin Govern, and Claire Finkelstein were hosting on the law and ethics of cyberwar.  It was a great conversation; so great, in fact, that Jens and his colleagues were inspired to use it as the launching pad for this volume — Cyberwar: Law and Ethics for Virtual Conflicts.  They asked me to write a chapter on an idea I’d had been thinking about since my first foray into the cyber arena back in 2007 — whether and when IHL (international humanitarian law, or the law of armed conflict for those of you trained in the United States) might involve a duty to hack?  The basic idea was straightforward — if a cyber-operation could achieve a military objective (say disabling a power grid or a war-supporting factory’s operations) without killing anyone or causing any lasting damage to the facility, shouldn’t IHL require States to employ it in lieu of kinetic operations that might cause civilian casualties or property damage?

Looking at the law today, the answer to this question is (largely) a negative one. Certainly, IHL contains a requirement for States to take precautionary measures (see Additional Protocol I, Art. 57) such as (i) choosing a means and method of warfare that minimizes ‘incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, and damage to civilian objects’ and (ii) selecting military objectives ‘expected to cause the least danger to civilian lives and to civilian objects’ in cases where ‘a choice is possible between several military objectives for obtaining a similar military advantage.’  And these requirements could require a cyber-operation over a kinetic one in specific cases akin to the arguments for using available precision weaponry.  But, there’s nothing in IHL that has ever said States have to use a particular type of weapon first, as my duty to hack might suggest.

More importantly, some cyber-operations might not even fall within IHL’s current ambit.  Although there’s continuing debate, the majority view is that IHL’s principles of precaution, discrimination, and proportionality only apply in cases of an “attack.”  IHL does not prohibit targeting or even harming civilians or civilian objects in a cyber-operation so long as the effects are not analogous to those previously crossing the attack threshold (i.e., those with violent consequences involving injury, death, destruction or damage). The scope of IHL’s precautions are similarly qualified; where a cyber operation does not qualify as an attack (i.e., it doesn’t physically damage anything), it does not need to be among the range of options military planners are required to consider in deciding what and how to attack.  IHL thus appears to authorize attacks – kinetic or otherwise – that cause physical damage and loss or injury of human life so long as they compare favorably to potential losses from other types of ‘attacks’ even if the same objective could be achieved without any attack at all.  That result may be incongruous with the humanity values that motivate much of IHL, but it represents the law as it stands today.

My chapter, therefore, undertakes a normative argument for a Duty to Hack, recognizing that the idea is clearly lex ferenda.  I argue that IHL should require states to use cyber-operations in their military operations when they are expected to be the least harmful means available for achieving military objectives. This duty departs from the current law in two key respects.  First, it would remove the “attack” threshold for precautionary measures since the novel and wide-ranging capacities of cyber-operations unsettle the idea that only attacks can achieve military objectives.  A cyber-operation may be able to achieve a military objective (e.g., shutting down a factory for some desired period of time) without causing any physical harm.  Rather than leave such cyber-operations outside the requirements of precaution because they do not meet the definition of an ‘attack’, a Duty to Hack would require that they be part of any choice in means, methods and objectives.  A cyber-operation that can achieve a particular military objective without an attack should be required in lieu of any ‘attack’ on that same objective by other means or methods, whether cyber, kinetic, or non-kinetic in nature.  In other words, so long as the military objective is achievable (and nothing in my idea would require hacking if it can’t achieve lawful military objectives), the Duty to Hack requires employing cyber-operations generating no physical harm over those means and methods of warfare that, by definition, must generate some physical harm (similarly, it would prioritize cases involving some harm in comparison to means and methods that would generate more harm).

Second, the Duty to Hack would addresses all forms of physical harm from cyber-operations, not just those of a civilian character. Existing IHL – distinction, proportionality, and precautions – only require efforts to avoid, limit, or minimize civilian harm. Absent the harmful civilian impacts protected by these and other IHL rules, militaries are free to employ destructive and lethal force against military objects and belligerents.  This approach furthers military necessity – complete submission of the enemy as soon as possible – and made sense where military objectives were usually military in character and dual-use objects qualified as military objects only on occasion. But, as is well known, information communication technologies are regularly dual-use (that is, they are used by both civilian and military actors).  I question whether this default treatment of dual-use objects as military objects should continue where all these cyber-related dual-use objects may be attacked (and damaged or destroyed) without regard to any questions of distinction, proportionality or precautions vis-à-vis the objects themselves.  Of course, one solution would be to require more careful segregation of military objects in cases where they are situated within or among civilian objects. My Duty to Hack, however, takes a different, and simpler, approach.  It would require using cyber-operations that cause the least harm to achieve a military objective in military operations. For example, assuming disruption of Iran’s nuclear processing plant was a lawful military objective, the prospect of deploying Stuxnet to achieve that objective would take priority over doing so by an airstrike if that airstrike – even a precise one – would foreseeably involve greater risks of injury, death, damage or destruction than spinning centrifuges out of control periodically.

Ultimately, my Duty to Hack idea is designed to preserve the principles of distinction and proportionality; IHL would continue to prohibit direct attacks on civilians and their objects by cyber-operations or otherwise, just as any military operation that does constitute an attack must not generate excessive civilian harm.  Nor would my Duty to Hack override the requirement to comply with the principles of discrimination and avoidance of unnecessary suffering when it comes to developing or deploying cyber-operations.

My chapter offers a longer examination of the Duty to Hack concept than space permits here (including a discussion of how it differs from the “duty to capture” concept that has caused much controversy in IHL circles).  I explore the trade offs involved in adopting it (including the potential for it to incentivize greater military cyber surveillance to solidify the reliability of various cyber capabilities).  In doing this analysis, however, I was struck by the larger challenges of using analogies to carve out the existing lines of IHL in cyberspace (not to mention the contours of any new lines that I propose). As a result, I ended up framing my chapter around a larger, introductory analysis of the role of boundaries in legal discourse over cyberspace.

Readers may be familiar with debates over whether cyberspace is subject to physical, territorial boundaries, most notable in on-going debates about which governance models best serve cyberspace (the traditional sovereign territorial model, a multistakeholder model where cyberspace is a res communis, or some sort of hybrid approach).  But, I notice similar sorts of conceptual boundary disputes in questions over what rules of international law apply in cyberspace, with much of the existing analyses resting on analogies to pre-existing regulatory regimes.  I find this “law-by-analogy” approach problematic, particularly when it comes to IHL and rules on the use of force. My chapter explains the problems such line-drawing poses in terms of their (i) accuracy, (ii) effectiveness and (iii) completeness.  Law-by-analogy works well where analogies hold (i.e., defining a use of force in cyberspace where the effects of a cyber operation analogize to the effects of prior activities treated as uses of force in the past; or, defining a non-use of force where the effects analogize to activities not treated as uses of force in the past).  But analogies break down where the technology includes previously-unseen capacities, which have no prior analogues.  In such cases, default presumptions may simply regard the behavoir as automatically prohibited or permitted in ways that create tensions with the law’s underlying nature and purpose.  For example, I find it problematic that cyber-operations do not qualify as attacks simply because they do not involve violent consequence even if they can achieve the very same military objective as an attack.  My Duty to Hack idea serves as a response to such difficulties by thinking more carefully about the rules for cyber operations and the values they serve when there are no analogues to earlier operations defined as attacks.

In the end, I had two overarching goals for this chapter.  First, I wanted to highlight the role of boundaries in governing cyberspace, and problematize the reasoning it generates as a result, particularly when done under the heading of law-by-analogy.  Second, I offer a critique of how existing boundaries operate with respect to contrasting cyber operations with other forms of attack, leading me to call for IHL to include a Duty to Hack.  Although such a duty would not come without costs, I believe it would more accurately and effectively account for IHL’s fundamental principles and cyberspace’s unique attributes than existing efforts to foist legal boundaries upon State cyber-operations by analogy. It could, moreover, offer a necessary first step to resolving the larger theoretical and functional challenges currently associated with law’s boundaries in cyberspace.

Interested in more?  You could always buy the book.

So What Are Your Top 5 Worst Treaties Ever?

by Duncan Hollis

Benjamin Soloway at Foreign Policy magazine thrilled me last week when he called to set up an interview for this story on the worst treaties ever.  Simply put, I love treaties and I love lists.  After all, a few years back I started a discussion on the most important treaties ever.  But, having given a lot of thought to my top 5, I was surprised to have never done a list of my bottom five.  So, I spent an entire day before talking to Ben, pestering my family (who do not necessarily share my enthusiasm for all things treaty-related) with various candidates based on different ways of defining “worst” (worst treaty for humanity? the parties? one party in particular? for third parties? for the agreement’s stated goals?).  In the end, I’m glad to see all the treaties that I mentioned got onto his list. Some, sadly, didn’t make the cut –I’d wanted the Universal Rubber Agreement included because it’s a rare example of a treaty that so failed to perform its intended functions (stabilizing rubber as a commodity) that the parties went through the trouble of terminating it in lieu of just letting it fall into desuetude.

Interested readers should definitely read Ben’s article.  But I thought I’d open the comments section here to allow Opinio Juris readers to sound off on whether they agree with his list, or to offer their own suggestions.  What treaties would you add (or delete) if we’re talking about the worst treaties of all time?

The Latest American Digest on International Law is now Available

by Duncan Hollis

Just a quick note to flag that the Digest of United States Practice in International Law 2014 is now available. You can access it here.  And here’s the accompanying press release from the U.S. State Department:

The Department of State is pleased to announce the release of the 2014 Digest of United States Practice in International Law, covering developments during calendar year 2014. The Digest provides the public with a record of the views and practice of the Government of the United States in public and private international law. The official edition of the 2014 Digest is available exclusively on the State Department’s website at: Past Digests covering 1989 through 2013 are also available on the State Department’s website. The Digest is edited by the Office of the Legal Adviser.

The Digest traces its history back to an 1877 treatise by John Cadwalader, which was followed by multi-volume encyclopedias covering selected areas of international law. The Digest later came to be known to many as “Whiteman’s” after Marjorie Whiteman, the editor from 1963-1971. Beginning in 1973, the Office of the Legal Adviser published the Digest on an annual basis, changing its focus to documentation current to the year. Although publication was temporarily suspended after 1988, the office resumed publication in 2000 and has since produced volumes covering 1989 through 2013.

Make ASIL 2016 Great! Submit a Proposal

by Duncan Hollis

I am a huge fan of ASIL’s Annual Meeting for a whole host of reasons.  I like to see old friends, make new acquaintances, and spend inordinate amounts of time talking in the hallways.  The book sales on Saturday morning is a highlight of my year (no comment on what that may say about my life).  But what really holds the event together is it’s programming.  And while some of that programming comes from the Programming Committee leadership, many (if not most) of the panels have their origins in good ideas from members like you and me.  So, with that in mind, I thought I’d pass along the following item that I just received from Tillar House:

The Annual Meeting Committee of the American Society for International Law (ASIL) is currently accepting proposal submissions for its 110th Annual Meeting, held March 30 – April 2, 2016, in Washington, DC. This year’s meeting will be held under the theme “Charting New Frontiers in International Law.”
The Committee will prioritize session proposals that involve non-traditional formats, such as interviews, Q&A roundtables, lectures, poster sessions, or the use of multimedia or interactive audience participation features. In addition, the Committee is committed to expanding diversity in the issues and voices represented at the Annual Meeting, and is excited to present a track specifically focused on professional and academic development.

Submissions are due Monday, July 20th, 2015, and the Committee will notify proposers regarding the status of their submission via email in the fall of 2015. For instructions, more information on the Annual Meeting, and to submit a proposal, please visit

I’m excited to see the call for new presentation formats and new voices.  So, please, if you have an interesting idea, please send it along to ASIL!  The Annual Meeting will be all the better for it.

Is Law Losing Cyberspace?

by Duncan Hollis

The ALL CAPS headline of the last few hours involves news that social security and other identifying information for some 4 million U.S. federal workers was compromised in a cyber exploitation that, if one believes the unofficial finger pointing, came at the behest of the Chinese government.  Of course, it was just yesterday, that the Council on Foreign Relations’ Adam Segal was reporting how China was crying foul over “OceanLotus” a cyber exploitation that counted various Chinese governmental agencies and research institutes among its victims (and where the fingers were pointed back at the United States). And that’s to say nothing of the Snowden disclosures or the tens of millions of people whose personal data has been compromised via data breaches of an ever-expanding list of private companies (e.g., in February 2015 the U.S. health insurer Anthem admitted that up to 80 million people in its databases had their personal data compromised).  Now, maybe such data breach stories are hyperbolic, offering big numbers of potential losses that do not necessarily mean actual data compromises, let alone consequences for the associated individuals.  Nonetheless, the current zeitgeist seems to be the normalization of cyber insecurity.

As someone who believes international law has an (imperfect) role to play in preserving international peace and stability, I find the current scenario increasingly worrisome.  The level and breadth of cyber exploitations suggests a world in which actors are engaged in a race to the bottom of every data well they think might be useful for their own purposes, on the theory that their adversaries (and their allies) are all doing the same.  In such a world, law seems to be playing a diminishing role.

To be clear, domestic law certainly may constrain (or facilitate) a State’s cyber operations, as all the anxiety associated with the expiration of the PATRIOT Act and this week’s passage of the USA FREEDOM Act suggest. For those of us who care about international law, however, it seems increasingly marginalized in the current environment.  We’ve spent much of the last several years, focused on how international law applies to cyber-operations with huge efforts devoted to questions of line-drawing in what constitutes a prohibited use of force in cyberspace under the jus ad bellum or where the lines are for an attack under the jus in bello.  The Tallinn Manual is the paradigmatic example of this (often quite good) work.  More recently, States and scholars have moved on to cyber operations below these lines, with attention shifting in Tallinn and elsewhere to which cyber operations may generate counter-measures and defining when cyber operations violate the duty of non-intervention.

Such efforts have (so far) had relatively little to say on the question of a cyber exploitation that is best characterized as espionage.  With the exception of U.S. efforts to decry “economic” cyber espionage (as opposed to national security cyber espionage), most international lawyers have shrugged their shoulders on the legality of governments (or their proxies) stealing data from other governments or their nationals.  The conventional wisdom suggests intelligence agencies will be intelligence agencies and we should let this play out via diplomacy or power politics.  To the extent international law has long failed to prohibit espionage, the thinking goes, by analogy it should also leave cyber espionage alone.  And if that’s true, international law has little to say about China taking whatever data it can on employees of the U.S. federal government.

Of course, conventional wisdom is often conventional for good reasons.  From a national security perspective, there are important interests that militate against regulating or constraining data collection from abroad.  Yet, I worry that we’re reaching a tipping point where in conceding international law can do little to nothing for the problem of cyber exploitations, we are effectively conceding the rule of law in cyberspace.  It’s understandable that, from a rational perspective, States will want to do as much of this activity as their technical capacity allows.  But, such self-centered policies have generated a dramatic collective action problem.  The current cyber system is certainly sub-optimal, whether you consider it in economic, humanitarian, or national security terms. The economic costs of the status quo are by all accounts growing, whether in terms of losses of data and IP, or the costs of cleaning up after exploits occur.  Similarly, the ability of individuals to preserve their privacy is rapidly diminishing, and the right to privacy along with it.  And, of course, national governments are fighting, and losing, the battle to keep their own data (and secrets) secure.

All of this leads me to ask whether it’s time to revisit the question of how international law deals with data breaches?  I recognize some may say “no” or that after long and careful thought the answer may remain the same.  But, the rising importance and success rates of data breaches across the globe suggests it’s high time for international law to at least engage these questions more closely.

What do others think?  Is international law losing in cyberspace or is there still a chance that it can play a regulatory role over modern cyberthreats, even if only an imperfect one?


The Fog of Technology and International Law

by Duncan Hollis

[Note: This piece is cross-posted to the SIDIblog, the blog of the Italian Society of International Law, which was kind enough to ask for my views on these topics; for those interested in their other posts (in multiple languages), see here.]


  • War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty.

Carl von Clausewitz, Vom Kriege (1832), Bk. 1, Ch. 3.

  • It is a cruel and bitter truth that in the fog of war generally and our fight against terrorists specifically, mistakes — sometimes deadly mistakes — can occur.  But one of the things that sets America apart from many other nations, one of the things that makes us exceptional is our willingness to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes. 

U.S. President Barack Obama, April 23, 2015

I arrived in Rome for a month-long visit at LUISS Universita Guido Carli to find a country wrestling with the tragic news of the death of one of its own – Giovanni Lo Porto.  As President Obama himself announced, the United States inadvertently killed Lo Porto and Warren Weinstein, a USAID contractor, as part of a January drone strike targeting an al Qaeda compound in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.   Both aid workers were Al Qaeda hostages; Lo Porto had been kidnapped in 2012, while Weinstein was abducted in 2011.

The story made global headlines for Obama’s apology that the United States had not realized these hostages were hidden on-site, and thus their deaths were a tragic mistake:

As President and as Commander-in-Chief, I take full responsibility for all our counterterrorism operations, including the one that inadvertently took the lives of Warren and Giovanni.  I profoundly regret what happened.  On behalf of the United States government, I offer our deepest apologies to the families.

President Obama directed a “full review” of the strike, and there are calls for other investigations as well, including here in Italy.

Amidst this tragedy – and some of the apparent missteps by the U.S. (not to mention Pakistani) governments (painfully noted by Mr. Weinstein’s family) — there is something remarkable in the Obama statement.  Unlike so many other reports of U.S. errors or controversial programs in recent years (think Wikileaks or this guy), here was the U.S. Government, on its own, declassifying and disclosing the facts surrounding a drone strike that by all accounts appears to have included a major mistake in its execution.  For lawyers, moreover, such disclosures are critical – without them we are left with what I’d call the “fog of technology” which precludes the application of the rule of law in an open and transparent way.

Clausewitz’s concept of the “fog of war” is simple, and well known:  it describes the situational uncertainty that military actors face, their lack of perfect information about an adversaries’ intentions and capabilities (not to mention incomplete knowledge of their allies’ intentions and capabilities).   What looks good on paper before an armed conflict may prove unworkable as the conditions of war – physical hardship, the need for immediate decision-making, emotional strains, etc. – complicate decision-making, and with it, the achievement of military objectives.

I use the term “fog of technology” to identify a similar situational uncertainty that lawyers face when confronting the deployment of new technology.  Simply put, new technology can cloud how lawyers understand the content of law.  Of course, lawyers can assess new technology and find it analogous to prior cases, allowing for what I call “law by analogy”, where the nature or function of a new technology is regulated according to how an analogous technology or function has been regulated in the past.  But the more novel the technology – the more it can function in non-analogous ways, or with effects previously unimagined – the more lawyers may (or at least should) struggle with interpreting and applying the law to it.

Now, the fog of technology can emerge in all sorts of legal systems and all sorts of contexts from 3D printing to nanotechnology to driverless cars.  But President Obama’s explicit reference to Clausewitz makes me think about it in the particular context of warfare itself.  We are very much in a fog of technology when it comes to applying law to modern conflicts, whether it’s the remotely-piloted drone that killed Lo Porto and Weinstein, Stuxnet, or rumors of truly autonomous weapon systems (or “killer robots”).  Which domestic and international legal frameworks regulate the deployment of these technologies?  Does international humanitarian law (IHL) govern these operations, and, if so, does it do so exclusively, or do other regimes like international human rights apply as well?  To the extent a specific regime applies – IHL – how do its rules on things like distinction or neutrality apply to technologies and operations that may have no prior analogues?  More specifically, how does the law treat specific cases – was the killing of Lo Porto and Weinstein, tragic but legal, or was it an internationally wrongful act?

Of course, technology is not the only reason we have such questions.  Indeed, several scholars (most notably Michael Glennon) have identified the idea of a “fog of law.”  The rise of new types of non-state actors such as Al Qaeda continue to generate legal uncertainty; more than a decade after September 11, debates persist over whether and when U.S. counter-terrorism operations fall within a criminal law framework, or, as the U.S. insists, within the laws of armed conflict.   Similarly, when the United States targets and kills a U.S. citizen abroad (such as Ahmed Farouq, the American affiliated with Al Qaeda, who died in the same strike that killed Lo Porto and Weinstein), the question is not so much how the technology did this, but whether the U.S. Constitution regulates such killing.

Still, I think there are features of technology itself that make lawyering in this context significantly more difficult.  My co-blogger Ken Anderson recently summarized a few of the most important aspects in a recent post at the Hoover Institution.  He identifies several commonalities among cyberweapons, drones, and killer robots:  (i) their ability to operate remotely; (ii) their capacity for extreme precision (at least when compared to earlier weapons); and (iii) the diminished ease of attribution.  Of these, I think the problem of attribution is foundational; law will have little to say if legal interpreters and decision-makers do not know how the technology has been deployed, let alone how it functions or even that it exists in the first place.   In such cases, the fog of technology is tangible.

Consider the story of drones and international law. (more…)

Book Symposium: Is there Existential Interpretation in International Law?

by Duncan Hollis

I want to start off our conversation about the larger project Bianchi, Peat and Windsor have undertaken with their new book before introducing my own contribution to it.  For years, the concept of interpretation has had a fairly narrow focus within the international legal landscape.  It has almost uniformly been associated with a discrete set of objects — treaties. From Grotius to Oppenheim, let alone McNair to Gardiner, when international lawyers have thought about interpretation, there has been a strong push to do so almost entirely with respect to treaty instruments.  Moreover, for several decades now the vehicle for interpretation has been widely accepted in the rules of the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.  Although there was a time when the issue of how to interpret treaties garnered a really diverse range of views, modern discourse has largely devolved into claiming that the VCLT approach gives priority to (or at least endorses inclusion of) different methods of interpretation (e.g., intentional, textual, teleological). Now, to be clear, these are tremendously important issues given the role of treaties in international law today; scholarship on these topics has been, and remains, an important part of international legal discourse.  Nevertheless, what I like about the Bianchi, Peat and Windsor book (putting aside my own contribution) is the editors’ willingness to deal with the traditional games of treaty interpretation while also expanding the discourse to frame interpretation as a much larger project within the international legal order.  It is an important move, and one I hope to see continued in future scholarship as international lawyers begin to recognize all the ways interpretation operates within every nook and cranny of the field.

As for my own chapter (which is still up on SSRN, although you should really buy the book), its inspiration lay in one other aspect of the conventional approach to interpretation — defining interpretation simply as a process of giving meaning to treaty texts.  I’ve always thought that this approach under-claimed the functions interpretation can serve.  Certainly, interpretation has an expository function where its processes help interpreters ascertain what meaning to assign some treaty provision or other aspect of international law.  But, interpretation can have other functions as well.  For example, although still controversial in some circles, there is the idea that interpretation has an inventive or creative function where instead of simply “finding” meaning, interpreters craft one for the circumstances presented.  Alternatively, interpretation may serve a relational role in delimiting not what specific things mean, but how they relate to one another (i.e. whether one treaty provision supersedes another, whether some international humanitarian law rule takes priority over a human right guarantee, etc.).

My contribution to this functional analysis is to highlight the existential potential of interpretation.  My chapter explores how, in ascertaining meaning, interpretation operates to confirm—or even establish—the existence of the subject interpreted within (or outside) the corpus of international law.  I argue that all interpretations have existential effects as they create, confirm, or deny the existence of the subject of interpretation. At the same time, I identify a particular structure of interpretative argument – what I call “existential interpretation” – by which interpreters ascertain the existence of their subjects.  Interpreters can foreground or background existential interpretations depending on whether the existence of the subject-matter is accepted or disputed. Moreover, I find existential interpretations are not limited to the treaty-context.  Rather, they are visible at all levels of international legal discourse, including which particular (i) authorities, (ii) evidence, (iii) rules, or (iv) sources exist for purposes of international law.

Some of these existential interpretations are quite prominent and should actually be familiar to most international lawyers even if not previously couched in such terms.  Does the U.N. Human Rights Committee have authority to sever reservations as inconsistent with the object and purpose of the ICCPR?  For purposes of identifying customary international law, is evidence of “State practice” only comprised of what States “do” or can it also count what States “say”?   Is there an “unwilling or unable” test in the jus ad bellum in response to non-State actor attacks?  Is R2P now a part of international law?  Is the new Iran Deal a treaty or not? Are decisions of international organizations a separate source of international law?   These are all examples of existential interpretative inquiries.

My chapter seeks to illuminate the existential function of interpretation and illustrate such interpretations in all the various aspects of the international legal system.  But my paper is not simply an exercise in interpretative taxonomy — identifying different frames for interpretative questions.  Rather, I seek to illuminate the consequences that the presence or absence of an existential interpretation may have in terms of international legal (a) discourse, (b) doctrine, and (c) theories of international law.  For starters, existential interpretations delineate the boundaries for interpretative discourse, narrowing it in cases of consensus on the existence of the interpreted subject, and broadening it in cases of dispute. Where interpretative resolutions of existential questions are possible, they may impact the content of international law doctrine, either directly or indirectly. And, where resolution is not possible, existential interpretations may operate as proxies for theoretical disagreement about the nature or purpose of international law (e.g., positivists may insist interpreters exclude from their toolbox the same soft law sources that naturalists insist require effectiveness as a matter of right).

I conclude my paper by calling for further study of existential interpretation for practical and theoretical reasons.  As a practical matter, it would be useful to know more about when and how actors actually foreground existential interpretations.  Obviously, there may be cases where an interpreter does so in good faith, but I suspect existential interpretations might also be deployed instrumentally.  Consider the possibilities when a State (or other actor) objects to an interpreter X claiming that Rule Y means Z.  Of course, the State might simply disagree that Z is the correct meaning of Rule Y. But a State could expand the scope of the interpretative dispute by also questioning whether X has authority to interpret, the evidence on which Rule Y rests as well as the source of international law it is derived from. The objecting State may thus complicate the dispute by expanding its scope.  In doing so, moreover, the objecting State may change the nature of the dispute itself, shifting a discussion away from the initial question (e.g., protecting victims of a humanitarian crisis) to issues of authority or procedure (does international law contain a rule requiring such protection and who has authority to invoke its mantel).

As a theoretical matter, existential interpretations can serve as a new lens for mapping the unity and fragmentation of the international legal order itself. Instead of examining fragmentation along a single axis (eg norms), mapping existential arguments offers a way to gauge the extent of unity versus fragmentation along multiple axes.  Since existential interpretations are manifest throughout international legal discourse, questions of unity or fragmentation can be examined in terms of authority, the sources of international law, the rules of international law and the evidence on which they are based, the actors who may participate, or the remedies international law affords.  In each area, the number and depth of existential debates offer a rough gauge for mapping unity versus fragmentation.  Where existential inquiries are absent or where a consensus exists on the answers, unity may be presumed.  Conversely, where there are existential disputes, they indicate a fragmentation of the legal system.

In sum, as much as I love treaties, I believe that there is significant value in thinking about interpretation as more than a process of giving treaty provisions meaning.  My introduction of the concept of existential interpretation is an effort to show just how broadly interpretative processes reach and structure the international legal order.  In doing so, I hope to illustrate — as the book itself does — the importance of thinking about interpretation as its own field within international law.

[An introductory post to the book symposium can be found here.]

The Iran Deal as a Political Commitment

by Duncan Hollis

I have to teach in 5 minutes so I just wanted to post a quick link and one comment on the Iran deal reached earlier today.  Those who want to read the joint statement itself — you can read it here.  My first reaction, based on my primer of a few weeks ago, is that it sure looks like the deal is taking the (widely anticipated) political commitment form, supplemented with the idea that a subsequent UN Security Council resolution will provide international legal force to it and the further details to be elaborated in the coming weeks.

My one comment is that this deal reflects an interesting development in US treaty/political commitment practice.  It signals (I think) the death knell of the old “will” vs. “shall” debate in determining whether a commitment was intended to have legal force or not.  For years, countries like the UK insisted that the verb “will” (which they frequently deploy in MOUs) per se reflected a lack of legal intention as opposed to the verb “shall”, which they believed was indicative of a treaty commitment.  In contrast, the United States took the position that “will” in many instances seemed indistinguishable from “shall” and thus the mere shift in wording could not, by itself, provide sufficient evidence of whether a treaty or political commitment was intended.  As a result, the United States regularly sought to avoid using both “will” and “shall” in its political commitments. Many hours and negotiating nights were, if you can believe it, spent wrestling over this issue.

Well, looking at the deal reached today, I count quite a few uses of the verb “will”.  Thus, it seems to me (unless I’m missing something, which is entirely possible), the United States may have finally conceded to the simplicity of the Queen’s English and allowed that using will, as in this deal, can be a way to signal to readers the parties intend a political commitment and not a treaty.

For those who want more, Dan Joyner has a more substantive take over at his blog.

Dealing with Iran: A Primer on the President’s Options for a Nuclear Agreement

by Duncan Hollis

Without weighing in on the merits of any deal with Iran on nuclear matters, I’ll express some frustration over the rhetoric used in the current firestorm between the White House, 47 Senators (plus Governors Perry and Jindal), Iran’s Foreign Minister, and the 4th Estate on what kind of deal the United States might conclude with Iran and the so-called P5+1 (the UK, France, China, Russia and Germany).  There seems to be a great deal of confusion and conflation of issues in terms of the legal logistics of concluding any deal.  Now, maybe some of that is willful — obfuscation in service of each side’s political goals.  But, on the chance that some of those weighing in are under-informed on the actual issues and options available, I thought I’d offer a (brief) primer on what the actual options are in this case and how those options may limit/shape U.S. behavior.

For starters, it’s critical to differentiate the question of how nation states can reach agreement from the question of how a domestic legal system authorizes a State to enter into agreements (let alone what effect it gives them).  As such, I think the conversation needs to split off the question of (1) what kind of international deal this will be; from asking (2) what authority does the United States have (or will it need) to conclude such a deal as a matter of U.S. law.  Let’s take each angle separately.

International Commitments

When it comes to nation States entering into an agreement (that is, a mutual commitment of shared expectations as to future behavior), there are actually three basic options States can choose: (a) a treaty; (b) a contract; or (c) a political commitment.

(a) a treaty:  The treaty is a (relatively) well understood vehicle that rests on international law for its authority and effects.  Article 2(a) of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT) defines a treaty as

an international agreement concluded between States in written form and governed by international law, whether embodied in a single instrument or in two or more related instruments and whatever its particular designation

There’s some nuance to this definition, which I’ve explained in the Defining Treaties chapter of my book.  But for our purposes, it suffices to note that the VCLT lays out who has authority to make a treaty (i.e., heads of state and government, foreign ministers and those with full powers) and how they can do so (i.e., by signature, ratification, accession, acceptance, approval or any other agreed means).  Once formed, a treaty is subject to the general (and fundamental) principle of pacta sunt servanda — treaties are “binding upon the parties to it and must be performed by them in good faith.” Domestic legal obligations are not recognized as a basis for breaching treaty commitments, with one exception.  Article 46 provides that

1. A State may not invoke the fact that its consent to be bound by a treaty has been expressed in violation of a provision of its internal law regarding competence to conclude treaties as invalidating its consent unless that violation was manifest and concerned a rule of its internal law of fundamental importance. 2. A violation is manifest if it would be objectively evident to any State conducting itself in the matter in accordance with normal practice and in good faith.

Article 46, however, has proven relatively limited in its availability to States as an exit option; the one time it got raised before the ICJ, the Court suggested that States are not obliged to keep track of other states’ legislative and constitutional regulations on treaty-making and that a violation could not be manifest “unless at least properly publicized.”   Given the varied ways the U.S. authorizes treaties (discussed in more detail below), it’s hard to imagine a later Administration being able to invoke Article 46.  Indeed, if U.S. foreign relations scholars can’t agree on the ground rules for when specific treaty-making procedures are required (or prohibited), I’m hard pressed to say other countries should be able to identify a manifest violation in a case where the Executive branch pursues one specific procedure over others.

(b) a contract:  Interstate commitments can also be contracts instead of treaties. Contracts, like treaties, are considered legally binding, but differ from them in that contracts rely on domestic law as the source of their “bindingness” instead of being governed by international law as treaties are. Still, governments from time to time will do deals (e.g., one State selling helicopters to another) where the agreement specifically indicates its terms are governed by, say, the “law of New York.” This doesn’t seem to be on the table with Iran though, so I’ll reserve to a latter date more detailed analysis of how contracts and treaties differ. 

(c) a political commitment:  The third — and final — option for agreements among States is a “political commitment.”  Some scholars prefer to call it “soft law,” but for reasons Josh Newcomer and I elaborated in our article on political commitments, I think that term is a bit of a misnomer. The basic idea is simple — states can make agreements where the basis of their commitment does not rest on law, but “political” (or perhaps “moral”) forces.  In a political commitment, the fact of the promise itself motivates compliance rather than importing the sanctity of law and its legitimacy to do so. Non-legally binding commitments have now been a feature of international relations for more than a century, and include some pretty high-profile agreements, including the Shanghai Communique, the Helsinki Accords, the recent US-China Deal on Climate Change, and the Comprehensive Joint Plan that started this whole set of negotiations with Iran.  Moreover, as Josh and my article details, these commitments exhibit a tremendous diversity in terms of the form they take, the substantive commitments they contain, the extent to which they establish or implicate institutions, not to mention their varied relationships to other legal and non-legal commitments.

Traditionally, political commitments are seen as distinct from treaties in terms of being (i) more flexible; (ii) less credible because exit options are easier; with (iii) greater opportunities for confidentiality; and (iv) fewer domestic legal hurdles to their formation.  The actual variation in political commitments suggests, however, that these differences may be over-stated — today’s practice suggests that there is some significant overlap in what political commitments and treaties do.  For example, it may have been true at one time that treaties were necessarily less flexible than political commitments, but with the advent of tacit amendment procedures, treaties have gained in flexibility, while some political commitments have become more highly structured and inflexible in terms of the precision or normativity of their contents or the institutional structure in which they operate.  The one area where political commitments appear to hold a distinct advantage (or disadvantage depending on your perspective) is with the relatively weak domestic law attention they receive.  As Josh and I concluded in our article — a point reiterated earlier today by Jack Goldsmith and Marty Lederman, states like the United States have imposed few (if any) legal restrictions on the Executive’s ability to enter into political commitments.

Domestic Authorities to Commit the United States Internationally

In Article II, Section 2, clause 2 of the Constitution, the President has the “power, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to make treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur.”  If one were to take up the issue de novo, you might think this text requires that all treaties the United States wishes to conclude under international law have to proceed to the Senate.  In practice, however, Senate Advice and Consent has become one of only four ways the United States may gain authority to enter into a treaty (in the international law sense of that term).  Add in the possibility that the Iran deal might be a political commitment, and there are actually five options for how U.S. law might authorize a deal with Iran: (i) Senate Advice and Consent; (ii) a Congressional-Executive agreement; (iii) via an existing Senate Advice and Consent treaty; (iv) a sole Executive Agreement; or (v) a political commitment.

(i) Senate Advice and Consent Treaty.  If the United States concludes a treaty (in the international law sense of the term) with Iran and the P5+1, President Obama could send that treaty to the Senate for advice and consent, and, assuming the Senate agreed (with or without reservations, understandings or declarations), the President would then clearly have constitutional authority to consent to the deal.  Senate advice and consent is much less used compared to the past (less than 10% of modern treaties go through the Senate), although it should be noted that almost all past arms control agreements have received Senate advice and consent.  Still, given the general stalemate that has pervaded the Senate’s role in treaty-making the last few years, this seems a complete non-starter as a path forward, particularly with 47 Senators on record against virtually any deal involving Iran.

(ii) Congressional-Executive Agreement:  The President could gain authority to conclude a treaty (again, in the international law sense of that term) with Iran and the P5+1 via Congress instead of the Senate alone.  A simply majority vote of both Houses could enact a bill that with the President’s signature would become federal law and thus create legal authority for the United States to conclude (and perform) an Iranian treaty.  As a practical matter, congressional consent can be ex ante or ex post, but again, domestic politics in this case countenances against this being a likely option (even though today the vast, vast majority of U.S. treaty commitments under international law rely on one or more statutory authorities for their formation).

(iii) via an Existing Senate Advice and Consent Treaty:  Article VI of the Constitution treats both statutes and treaties (i.e., those receiving Senate advice and consent) as the “supreme law of the land.” Thus, just as a statute could authorize President Obama to conclude an international agreement with Iran, so too could a pre-existing Senate advice and consent treaty.  So far, I’m not aware of any nominations for an existing U.S. treaty that could do this (but someone might want to carefully parse the 1955 Treaty of Amity and Peace with Iran if it’s still in force (it’s not listed in Treaties in Force)).   Or, this might be a way forward if, as Marty and Jack hint, the Executive branch concluded the deal with Iran as a political commitment, but then had it endorsed by the U.N. Security Council pursuant to its Chapter VII authorities.  In that case, legal authority to conclude the deal might reside in the U.N. Charter itself since the Senate long ago gave consent, subject to a U.S. veto, to Security Council measures to preserve international peace and security.  As such, I don’t think we can dismiss this option as much as it might seem inapplicable at first glance.

(iv) Sole Executive Agreement:  The President may rely on his own Constitutional powers (e.g., as commander in chief) to authorize a U.S. treaty commitment.  In practice, this is rarely done as the State Department will usually try to also locate authority in at least one federal statute (even something as bland as Congress’ authorization of State Department responsibility for foreign affairs).  That said, the Supreme Court has endorsed the President’s ability to conclude certain treaties as sole executive agreements, although often in the face of congressional acquiescence, not outright opposition.  So, one might imagine this option would generate some inter-branch litigation if the Republican-controlled Congress rejects reading the president’s powers to include whatever sort of commitments are contained in any agreement the United States concludes with Iran.  Still, if the deal is to be a treaty under international law, this seems the most likely basis for authorizing it under U.S. law.  As Fred Kaplan noted yesterday, and Secretary Kerry apparently suggested a few hours ago, all the attention on treaties may have been misplaced and an entirely different deal might be at work here, namely a political one.

(v) Political Commitment;  It’s possible that the White House is looking for a political commitment with Iran and the P5+1.  If so, then all the machinations about forming a treaty under international law, and, just as importantly, the relatively robust set of domestic approval options for treaty-making, are inapplicable.  Although Josh and I argued that functional similarities between treaties and political commitments should require a Congressional role in the formation of at least some political commitments, I concede that Marty and Jack are correct that at present it’s hard to say this is the law of the United States.  On the contrary, today, it still appears that political commitments by their very nature do not implicate any of the domestic legal, procedural hurdles associated with treaties and thus may be a path forward for the United States to do a deal with Iran without worrying about the views of either the Senate or Congress as a whole.

That said, if the United States is actually going to argue it is concluding a political commitment with Iran and not a treaty, I want to conclude with two important caveats on the international and domestic aspects of such a deal that I’ve not seen mentioned previously.

First, a political commitment must be a political commitment for all sides, not just one side.  There’s much ambiguity in the U.S. and Iranian statements surrounding some of the negotiations, and it’s possible to read some of yesterday’s press briefing to suggest a deal where the United States would have only a political commitment while Iran was legally bound to perform its promises (see, for example, the carefully worded “verifiable and enforceable commitments” language used). That, however, is not an available option in international law.  Either the agreement is a treaty for all parties or its a political commitment for all participants.  I am unaware of any case where the nature of the agreement varies for the parties to it (that is it was a treaty for one state and a political commitment for everyone else).  Certainly, there have been disputes in the past as to the status of a particular agreement, with the ICJ and international arbiters called upon to weigh in on whether the deal struck gave rise to international legal obligations or not.  And it’s also possible for a treaty to contain not just legally binding commitments but also political ones (see, e.g., Article 1 of the Algiers Accords).  But, a stand-alone political commitment is, by definition, mutually exclusive from the international legal commitment that defines a treaty.  As such, once an agreement contains at least one commitment intended to be governed by international law, it’s a treaty not a political commitment.  Indeed, unlike contracts, treaties do not require consideration.  Thus, a treaty can exist where only one side (e.g., Iran) makes all the promises to do (or not do) certain things. Taken together, this suggests that, unless the United States is making some new, novel move to unsettle the existing forms of international commitment, its suggestion that it is pursuing a political commitment with Iran should mean that none of the commitments will give rise to any international legal obligations in and of themselves (there may be separate estoppel arguments, but let’s save those for another post).

Second, turning to the U.S. domestic context, it may be true that the Constitution does not require any particular approval procedure for political commitments, but it is also true that the Senate retains significant political power to pressure the President to pursue a treaty over a political commitment or even to insist on having a treaty submitted for Senate advice and consent in lieu of simply relying on Executive Power.  For example, before it became the Senate-approved Moscow Treaty, President Bush had apparently considered the possibility of doing the deal with Russia as either a political commitment or a Sole Executive Agreement.  But the Senate objected; and in a bipartisan push succeeded in having the deal submitted for its advice and consent.  Thus, one could imagine that if the Senate (or I suppose Congress as a whole) wanted to deploy their political checks on Executive power (think appropriations or ambassadorial/cabinet approvals), the White House might have to recalculate whether and how it wants to proceed with Iran here.  Nor is this entirely a U.S. problem; reports suggest that when the United States was looking to craft a strategic framework with Iraq a few years back, the Iraqis ended up concluding that the deal had to be done as a treaty (in the international law sense) since their Parliament was insisting on approving it in lieu of going to more streamlined political commitment route.  Simply put, just because there may be no extant constitutional constraints on the President’s ability to conclude a political commitment with Iran does not mean that there won’t be domestic negotiations over whether and how the United States concludes any deal involving Iran and nuclear matters.

So . . . now that I have that all off my chest, I’ll get out of the way and let the various actors continue to negotiate and debate the merits of the appropriate way(s) forward here.  I just hope that folks will do so with more attention to what the existing international and domestic law has to say (or not say) on these questions.


A Global Cyber Federation? Envisioning a Red Cross Movement in Cyberspace

by Duncan Hollis

Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the future of cyberspace and how to deal with the coordination and collective action problems that are leading to the normalization of cyber insecurity. As I’ve written previously, I’m skeptical that the standard legal regulatory move — proscription — will work at either the individual or the State level.  Thus, I’ve tried to examine ways law can help regulate and promote resilience in cyberspace independent of identifying and punishing bad actors, including an idea for some sort of e-SOS system.  Much of the feedback I received on that idea involved questions on operationalizing any duty to assist.  Certainly, it could be something States (or other actors) adopt unilaterally; or it could be something States might coordinate in some form of international agreement such as a treaty (or more likely these days) some form of political commitment.  There is, however, another option based on one of the most successful humanitarian organizations in history — the Red Cross.  Simply put, why not have a Red Cross-like movement in cyberspace where interested entities (including CERTs) combine to coordinate and offer assistance to victims of severe cyberthreats impartially, neutrally, and independent of governments and their particular interests (e.g., surveillance)?

Together with Tim Mauer of New America, I’ve got a populist call for such a movement in Time today.  To be clear, the idea is not to hand over cyberspace to the Red Cross (even if it may have a clear role to play in future cyber conflicts).  Rather, it’s to see the potential of using the movement’s evolution, its structure and its norms (e.g., neutrality, independence, and impartiality) to improve resilience and cyber security at a global level.  Here’s the opening salvo:

Here’s an understatement: 2014 was a bad year for cybersecurity. The Sony hack was the highest profile hack of the year, a cyber-attack against a German iron plant caused massive physical damage, and the Heartbleed vulnerability was considered “catastrophic” even among experts not known to be alarmist. In the meantime, large-scale data breaches hit household names such as Target, Home Depot and JP Morgan Chase, with new reports emerging almost weekly. In the history of cybersecurity, 2014 marks a new low. As 2015 gets underway, news of the insurance company Anthem being hacked suggests cybersecurity is unlikely to improve anytime soon. That’s why conversations in national capitals, boardrooms, international conferences and on-line discourse feature a growing call to action.

The time is ripe for a bolder approach to cybersecurity, one not beholden to the existing politics of Internet governance nor linked to particular governments or intergovernmental organizations. We believe cyberspace could use a global cyber federation, a federation of non-governmental institutions similar to the role that the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement and humanitarian assistance organizations more broadly have with respect to armed conflicts and natural disasters.

Obviously, there are lots of questions (and details) that require elaboration. For now, however, I’m going to push this idea and see whether it might get traction among those who would be in a position to actually participate in such a movement.  After all, if a few committed individuals like Henry Dunant could create the Red Cross, what’s to stop a similar idea from taking hold in cyberspace?